1951: Antonio Riva and Ruichi Yamaguchi

5 comments August 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1951, the first two foreigners — Italian merchant Antonio Riva and Japanese bookseller Ruichi Yamaguchi — were convicted and immediately executed in Beijing for a supposed plot to assassinate Mao Zedong.

According to Time magazine’s coverage of the affair, Radio Peking said that

“the streets they passed through [en route to execution] were thronged with people who expressed their feelings .. . with shouts of ‘Down with imperialism! Suppress counterrevolutionaries! Long live Chairman Mao!'”


No relation.

Riva (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a World War I fighter ace who had relocated to Beijing/Peking in the 1920s to peddle aircraft and training the Chinese Koumintang.

(In 1936, Riva married Catherine Lum, the daughter of American wood block artist Bertha Lum and sister of Eleanor Peter Lum, who took after mom.)

When the guys those planes were being used against won the Chinese Civil War, Riva mulled an expedient departure, but reportedly declared (Spanish link) that he could do business under any regime type.

The Communist government decided he had a different sort of business in mind. Citing Chinese state media, the London Times (Aug. 18, 1951) described the plot thus:

the conspirators planned to fire mortar shells at a reviewing stand outside the Tien An gate of the forbidden city in Peking during a procession to celebrate China’s national day on October 1 last year.

Several others, both Chinese and foreigners, drew long prison sentences as part of the “conspiracy” uncovered in a one-hour trial. The most illustrious of those was the Italian bishop Tarcisio Martina.*

Though Riva and Yamaguchi were the first foreigners officially executed by the new Chinese government, they were far from the last. All the more remarkable, then, that in a country that carries out thousands of executions per annum, Antonio Riva is thought to have been the last European citizen put to death there until Akmal Shaikh in 2009.

The Shaikh case helped rekindle interest in Riva’s execution — a timely confluence, since a recent book, L’ uomo che doveva uccidere Mao, critiqued the case against the Italian aviator.

* American diplomat Col. David Barrett, safely beyond the reach of the Maoists at Formosa, was a supposed ringleader.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Italy,Japan,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Wrongful Executions

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1909: Madanlal Dhingra, Indian revolutionary

3 comments August 17th, 2009 Headsman

A century ago today, the first Indian revolutionary martyr to be hanged in England was put to death at Pentonville Prison.

Madanlal Dhingra (or Madan Lal Dhingra) was a bright young scion of a loyalist Indian family that disowned him when he took to radical politics.

As an engineering student in London, Dhingra quaffed the martyr’s cup by assassinating Sir William Curzon Wyllie, a career imperial official spending his golden years keeping tabs on nationalist types among England’s Indian students. (Evidently, he could have been doing his job better.)

Dhingra rejected the legitimacy of the British court, disdained a defense, and was sentenced to death on the first day of trial. His martyrdom being the shared object of both the prosecutors and the offender, he was not long for the world — supposedly checking out with the well-turned last words,

My only prayer to God is that I may be re-born of the same mother and I may re-die in the same sacred cause till the cause is successful.

Dhingra is a noteworthy martyr to the cause of Indian independence now, but like anything else things weren’t so black and white at the time. Gandhi was not down with Dhingra — Gandhi’s own differences with Hindu extremists would eventually cost him his life — and plenty of Indian liberal types shared his abhorrence.

On the other hand, a subversive Brit like poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt filled his blog-like diary with admiration for the assassin during the weeks of his celebrity — writing of this date, for instance:

They have done me the honour of choosing [my birthday] for Dingra’s execution, thus making of it an anniversary which will be regarded as one of martyrdom in India for generations.

And reflecting later, after the hanging:

People talk about political assassination as defeating its own end, but that is nonsense; it is just the shock needed to convince selfish rulers that selfishness has its limits of imprudence.

Other subjects of the Empire were inclined to agree.


From the Aug. 19, 1909 London Times.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,India,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Separatists

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1795: Tula, Curacao’s Nat Turner

1 comment October 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1795, the slave whose rebellion had shaken the Dutch Caribbean colony of Curaçao was publicly tortured to death with his chief confederates.

The Landhuis Knip commands the plantation where Tula’s revolt began — the dark history behind the Dutch Antilles’ charming facade.

On August 17, 1795 Tula (English Wikipedia page | Dutch) launched a well-planned insurrection on the island, one of the major transit points in the Atlantic slave trade.

Inspired by the Haitian Revolution — and reasoning that, since France occupied the Netherlands, that whole Declaration of the Rights of Man thing ought to be trickling down to Dutch colonies — the rebels freed slaves plantation to plantation and quickly swelled near 1,000.

Of course, Jean-Jacques Rousseau aside, the slaves were also irate that they were damn slaves.

Although the outside forces of international geopolitics played a role in inspiring the 1795 revolt, slaves could find sufficient justification for insurrection in the domestic policies that Dutch planters employed to keep their slaves laboring in Curacao. The planters maintained a harsh regime in which many privileges that had traditionally been bestowed upon slaves had been removed in order to heighten productivity and increase plantation profitability. By 1795, most slaves were being forced to work on Sundays, which had generally been a day of rest in the past, and many planters hired their slaves out to maximize profits by exploiting their labor. It had also become customary for all of the slaves on a plantation to be punished in response to the offense that an individual slave among them had committed. (Source)

A priest was sent as envoy from the worried white community to the rebel encampment, with an offer of amnesty for submission.

Tula (sometimes surnamed as Tula Rigaud) and fellow leaders Bastiaan Karpata (or Carpata), Pedro Wakao (or Wacao) and Louis Mercier received him politely, hosted him overnight, and told him to get lost. This is Tula:

Father, do not all the persons spring from Adam and Eve? Was I wrong in liberating twenty-two of my brothers who were unjustly imprisoned? Father, French liberty was a disaster for us. Each time one of us is punished, we are told: “Are you also looking for your freedom?” One day I was arrested, and I begged mercy for a poor slave; when I was liberated, my mouth was bleeding. I fell on my knees and I cried to God: “O Divine Majesty, O Most Pure Spirit, is it Your will that we are ill-treated? Father, they take better care of an animal.”

And subhuman was the torture Tula, Karpata and Wakao* bore for their insistence on freedom when a fellow slave finally — inevitably? — betrayed them.

At a spot now commemorated by a beachfront monument, the three had their bones systematically shattered with an iron rod, their heads lopped off, and their bodies tossed into the sea. (Despite the metadata on this post, it wasn’t precisely “breaking on the wheel” — but the bone-shattering was pretty much the same idea.)

Curacao remains today a Dutch possession; slavery was abolished there in 1863. August 17, the dawn of these Dutch slaves’ inspiring and fatal revolt for freedom, is now honored on the island — and off it.

* It’s unclear to me whether Mercier, who was captured earlier, was also executed with the others, or whether Mercier’s sentence had already been carried out by this time.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Gruesome Methods,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Netherlands,Netherlands Antilles,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Slaves,Soldiers

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1571: Marco Antonio Bragadin, flayed Venetian

9 comments August 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1571, the commander of a Venetian garrison was flayed by the Turks.

Marco Antonio Bragadin (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) — or Marcantonio Bragadin — was the captain of Famagusta as an Ottoman Empire near the peak of its power began to wrest Cyprus from eight decades of Venetian control.

The Turks sacked the wealthy Cypriot capital Nicosia in September 1570, slaughtering or enslaving the inhabitants. Bragadin thereupon received an inducement from the invaders to surrender the last Venetian outpost still remaining in Cyprus: the severed head of Nicosia’s general.

Bragadin was having none of it.

Milord pasha of Carmania,

I have seen your letter. I have also received the head of the lord lieutenant of Nicosia, and I tell you herewith that even if you have so easily taken the city of Nicosia, with your own blood you will have to purchase this city, which with God’s help will give you so much to do that you will always regret having encamped here.

The Famagustans didn’t get quite that much help from God, but they forced a dear purchase in blood. For nearly a year, they repelled the siege; starving and exhausted, they at last accepted a merciful surrender only to have the entire garrison slain (the link is in Italian) at the beginning of this month.

The entire garrison, save Bragadin.

Special torments were reserved for the general who had given them such trouble. Executed Today friend Melisende’s Historic Biography post on Bragadin recounts the nauseating Calvary of the Venetian: mutilated, dragged around his fallen fortress, then exposed on the docks for flaying alive. The skin was stuffed with straw and sailed back to Istanbul as a war trophy for the Sultan Selim II.

One can see here, of course, the narrative of East vs. West in a war for civilization itself, although one should observe that the overthrow of Catholic hegemony on Cyprus restored the privileges of the Orthodox church. But the fall of Cyprus was itself the backstory for one of the pivotal naval battles of the age two months later, the Battle of Lepanto, at which a league of Mediterranean powers including Venice decisively checked Ottoman influence at sea, pre-empting a likely invasion of Italy.

Bragadin, for his part, became a potent symbol blending civic and religious martyrdom in what turns out to be (post-Lepanto) a victorious cause. One might say that he fulfilled a need.

Cultures which have drawn nourishment from their legendary martyrs feel a need to prolong the spectacle of their suffering. They hark back to the desire to keep the dying man with them; and the memory of this desire strengthens their tales of holy victimhood, dramatizes them, keeps them alive. Bragadin’s torture was long-drawn-out, and it must be constantly remembered as such.

… Christians’ preoccupation with relics has been complex, enduring and, at times, feverishly obsessive. It has reached high points in moments when Catholic doctrines and practices have felt most dramatically threatened. During Marcantonio Bragadin’s lifetime, and during the period immediately following, Christendom trembled before the encroaching Muslims. In this context, the story of Bragadin’s martyrdom acquired particular potency: not because the Church proclaimed him a saint, but because by analogy, he seemed to bring the ancient Christian matrydoms up to the present. He seemed to make those sufferings real and explicit, lifting them out of their legendary fogginess. Step-by-step, piece-by-piece, he “demonstrates” the martyr’s ordeal, almost as in a manual of suffering.

Nor was the fulfillment merely conceptual. According to this page on Rome tourist destinations, the painting of St. Bartholomew‘s flaying executed for the ancient basilica of Santi Nereo e Achilleo in the 1600 Jubilee alludes directly to the more contemporary event — notice the dark, turban-clad figure on the left.

In 1596, one of the few survivors of Cyprus nicked Bragadin’s hide from Istanbul and returned it to Venice, where it remains today entombed as a relic at the Basilica di San Zanipolo.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cyprus,Death Penalty,Execution,Flayed,Gruesome Methods,History,Italy,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Power,Soldiers,Venice,Wartime Executions

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